Struggling with social anxiety and panic disorders, and overwhelmed by technology, middle schooler Sasha is sent upstate to spend a device-free summer with Aunt Ruthie — who is no longer herself after the death of Sasha’s beloved Uncle Lou.
Sasha is sorry to have to cancel his summer plans, which involve playing video games with his friend Daniel. His anxious thoughts seem to swallow him up in a haze he calls “The Gray,” where everything feels cold, lonely, and depressing. He practices his grounding techniques, but he can’t handle the bullying to which he is subjected. If he doesn’t fight back, the bullying persists; if he does, he hurts others and gets into serious trouble. A summer in the country, in Aunt Ruthie’s warm Jewish environment, seems like an excellent idea. While he misses Uncle Lou and all the fun they had together, he can still explore new and old surroundings — including the campgrounds at Camp Akiva, which were an important part of Uncle Lou’s life. Old Jewish stories and delicious Jewish food contribute to Sasha’s healing. He gets some much-needed distance from his life at home, giving him a new perspective.
As Sasha makes friends, rides horses, and helps Aunt Ruthie, he encounters a new group of bullies. But he learns much about himself and how best to live his life. He realizes that although electronic devices can continue to play an important, if limited, role in his life, he also has room in his heart for new friendships and many other enriching activities. He also learns that The Gray can be handled with others’ help. By the end of the summer, Sasha, newly confident, is ready to continue living his life using the tools he has acquired.
Readers will identify with Sasha as his understanding of the world matures, and will be fully engrossed in his adventures and relationships.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.